Will the ‘Wall’ Fall?

Troy A. Eid claims that we shouldn’t take the separation of church and state so seriously because, after all, George Washington didn’t. Eid writes for the February 15 Rocky Mountain News:

A bold new book, co-authored by a prominent Colorado attorney, takes direct aim at this conventional wisdom. In Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State, Denver’s own Joe Smith and Tara Ross, a Texas-based lawyer and writer, counter Jefferson’s wall-of-separation approach with that of the best-known Founder of them all, George Washington. …

According to Washington, there is no wall. Instead, government should broadly encourage religious expression in order to strengthen public virtue – what might be called “values” today. The First Amendment, read in the way its drafters intended, means that the state must not discriminate for or against any particular sect or set of religious beliefs.

Smith and Ross carefully document their claim that Washington, not Jefferson, was in a far better position to interpret constitutional history based on real-life experience.

Ironically, Jefferson was minister to France from 1785 to 1789 and did not participate in the Constitutional Convention, or in the congressional debates that produced the Bill of Rights. Washington, in contrast, presided over that convention and was intimately involved in the process from beginning to end.

Notably, “Troy A. Eid is the U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the U.S. Department of Justice.”

Eid was “Nominated by [three guesses] President Bush…”

On March 3, Robert R. Tiernan of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Colorado Chapter, replied:

The First Amendment was not the subject of the Constitutional Convention over which George Washington presided. Rather, the Amendment was later debated in Congress after the Constitution was ratified and Washington had become president. With Jefferson’s help and advice, then-Rep. James Madison, a strict church/state separatist, marshaled the measure through the Congress and it was later ratified by the states as part of the Bill of Rights.

Beyond the historical debate, the First Amendment states clearly, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Eid, on the other hand, claims that the “First Amendment… means that the state must not discriminate for or against any particular sect or set of religious beliefs.” Eid has skipped right over the “establishment” clause to the “free exercise” clause. Yet both are necessary to preserve freedom of conscience, the broader intent of the First Amendment.

According to Eid’s interpretation, the state may actively promote generic religious beliefs, so long as the state does not favor “any particular sect or set of religious beliefs,” and so long as the state does not establish an official religion. Yet, aside from the fact that every possible state-sanction of religion would involve a “particular sect or set of religious beliefs,” Eid entirely neglects our right to remain free from religion. Forcing someone to fund via taxation some religious program or ideology, against the funder’s will, is a violation of the person’s rights.

Eid presents a slightly more sophisticated variant of Janet Rowland’s comment about the separation of church and state: “It’s not in the Constitution. We should have the freedom OF religion, not the freedom FROM religion.” Rowland, the running mate of Bob Beauprez for the governor’s race of 2006, got trounced in that election. Consistent with her pronouncement, Rowland promoted the spending of tax dollars for religious welfare and education.

Regardless of the weakness of Eid’s case, he illustrates one point with perfect clarity: America’s religious right has been enormously successful in advancing its agenda of faith-based politics.

2 thoughts on “Will the ‘Wall’ Fall?”

  1. To what extent does it even matter what the founders intended? I mean, if they had slaves and didn’t intend for women to vote does that mean we should have slaves and women shouldn’t vote?

  2. The key thing is that when the first amendment was passed, it was not binding on the states (“Congress shall . . .”). It left the states free to keep their established or semi-etablished churches. I think Mass didn’t end the establishment of Congregationalism until the 1830s, if I recall. Madison tried to get the Bill of Rights binding on the states, but that failed. So the “separation of church and state” was (in part) the separation of the federal government from the state establishments.

    It was only with the 14th amendment that the first amendment “arguably” (to use a word I dislike) became applied to the states.

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